My inbox has filled up with proposals for Big Ten divisions from the moment the blog network launched in July 2008.
Turns out, Big Ten fans aren't the only ones getting an early start on the tall task of splitting up the league.
When Big Ten athletic directors gathered in Chicago for their spring meetings in May, they looked at different models for division alignment. Nebraska had been discussed as an expansion candidate, but the ADs didn't anticipate any imminent action, so they played around with the divisions without knowing the potential addition or additions to the league.
"We didn’t have names, but we talked about different ways you could do it, depending on the size of the conference," Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said.
Now that Nebraska is joining the league in 2011, the process has accelerated.
The Big Ten athletic directors received a memo this week from league commissioner Jim Delany, outlining the priorities and the process for determining divisions. Big Ten associate commissioner Mark Rudner and others are spearheading the project, and will present data to the athletic directors when they gather in Chicago for the Big Ten's media days and kickoff luncheon Aug. 2-3.
A resolution should come shortly after, especially because of the need to sort out future schedules.
"I believe the divisional makeup will be done by the beginning of the academic year," Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi said, "and the schedule will follow shortly thereafter because we all want to know where we’re playing and when. I don’t see this being as big an issue as some people have made it. Maybe I’ll be surprised at that, but I do believe we'll come to a conclusion relatively quickly."
Maturi is confident in a group of ADs who have made tough decisions before. The fact that they got a jump start on the process in May also helps.
"We weren’t sure how the expansion thing was going to pan out, but we did talk about the notion that geography doesn't always work," Burke said. "The one thing we talked about, and it’s actually in our bylaws, is comparative parity. You have to make sure you protect the rivalries as best you can, and I think we’ll be able to do that, but you don’t want either of these divisions to be imbalanced."
Burke added that divisions likely would be necessary only in football, which lacks a conference tournament like the other sports. So the concerns about non-revenue sports travel aren't valid because their scheduling format won't change much.
Many Big Ten fans favor a geographical split down the Illinois-Indiana border. They think it maintains competitive balance, preserves longstanding rivalries and limits travel to many of the road games.
"That’s just the easy thing to do, just draw a line and divide it up geographically," Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said. "I don’t know if that’s necessarily the best way. Competitive equality in both divisions is important."
How do you assess competitive balance? Traditional power Michigan is at its lowest point in 45 years, while Wisconsin certainly isn't the sputtering program that Alvarez took over as head coach in 1990. Minnesota is no longer winning national titles, while Northwestern hasn't been the league's doormat for 15 years.
How far back should the ADs go to evaluate programs?
"You have to look with a wide lens," Burke said. "You have to look over a 50-year period and look at who’s been consistent. If you take a snapshot of a five-year period or a 10-year period, you may miss it. Clearly, Michigan and Ohio State and Penn State and Nebraska, if you look at a 50-year history, are your four biggest brands. It doesn’t mean they win all the time, but they’re your biggest brands. I don’t think there’ll be any disagreement among all the Big Ten ADs about that.
"You’re not going to stack all four of them in one division. You’re going to try to create some level of parity."
Like the rest of their colleagues, Burke, Alvarez and Maturi will go to Chicago with their own specific interests to protect. Wisconsin wants to safeguard its rivalries with Minnesota and Iowa. Burke values the Purdue-Indiana rivalry, and he wants to keep playing Notre Dame out of conference every year, too. Maturi is well aware of Minnesota's extensive history with both Wisconsin and Iowa.
But to reach a consensus, the ADs also have to go in with an open mind.
“Have to is a strong term because again, we’re all willing to give up something," Maturi said. "Our traditional rivalries always have been and remain Iowa and Wisconsin. Those are the two schools we would hope to maintain competitive balance and a relationship with. But even those schools, I’m willing to take a deep breath and look at the big picture and do what is necessary because this is a good, long-term commitment for the betterment of the Big Ten.
"I think you’ll find that the athletic directors and the commissioner will lead us down that path."